Former District 103 janitor publishes children’s book of his tall school tales

There might be an elephant in that closet — and it might be a robotic elephant. Do not step too hard on that floor tile, because you might squash the ants’ classroom underneath.

These are the everyday goings-on in the mind of Ed Denecke. And, when he returns to Lincolnshire, he will not be excited.

“That day, I’m going to be filled with helium,” Denecke said.

In the halls of Lincolnshire-Prairie View Elementary District 103, Denecke was known for 25 years as Mr. Ed, the janitor who always had inventive stories to tell.

Someone’s locker was jammed shut because an alien was hiding inside, he might say. Or Denecke might claim he was walking an alligator on a leash when it was actually his long green mop.

For the last 16 of those years, Denecke tried to turn his daydreams into a children’s book — and now he has succeeded.

“I was jumping up and down,” he said of the day this summer when his first box of hard copies arrived.

“What Happens at School When You’re Not There?” takes Denecke’s whirring and whimsical scene of an elementary school after the day goes dark and brings it into the light.

The publisher, Belle Isle Books, is handling the promotional duties, but Denecke began that process long ago by reading his story and showing his drawings during District 103 events.

Now retired and living in Ohio, Denecke is looking forward to scheduling his first presentation with an official book to read.

“I would do it again,” he said of the journey, “but it was definitely nerve-wracking.”

The journey began in 1988, when Denecke became the evening janitor at Daniel Wright Junior High. He later moved to Sprague Elementary.

“When you work night shift, you don’t have very much interaction with the children,” he said.

So he filled the halls with his imagination. And when he moved to day shifts, he filled the students’ minds with fanciful explanations for everything.

They wanted to know why Mr. Ed had to fix a floor tile that had popped out of place.

“Well, there’s ants who go to school down there and they push the tile up, and in the morning I have to push them back down,” he told them.

Sprague had two boilers at the time — “they were as big as an elephant, literally” — so sometimes he would crack the door to the boiler room open, just enough so a few kids could steal a glance at the sleeping pachyderms inside.

Around 1994, a mom suggested he turn his creations into a book.

“As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the idea of turning all those ideas I’ve been telling into a book began,” he said. “The building starts when the children leave.”

Denecke envisioned a story told in rhyme, but knew nothing of poetry. Years of struggles with properly stressed syllables and timing followed.

He could draw, but knew nothing of color balance. More guess-and-check creation ensued.

But he started reading and showing drafts of the text and illustrations to students, who loved the material.

In 1999, Sprague music teacher Mary Lighthall turned Denecke’s idea into a musical. Children were singing his lines 15 years before they were published.

As is often the case with aspiring creators, help came in unexpected forms.

One visiting author showed the janitor the basic rules of poetry. In 2010, visiting children’s writer Leslea Newman spent 60 seconds glancing over a copy of Denecke’s work and told him his ending was wrong.

By this time, his two daughters, Rebecca and Rachelle, were grown and helping him.

His boss, Sprague principal Christy Adler, was pursuing a doctorate, but when Denecke learned that publishers expected writers to have websites and use social media, Adler took an evening to help out the 50-something Facebook first-timer.

The final breakthrough, though, came when his niece, Taylor Denecke, got a job in publishing and got evaluators at Belle Isle to give his manuscript a look.

On Dec. 17, 2012, the janitor got the letter — Belle Isle wanted to publish his ideas.

More complications followed. Squabbling politicians in Washington shut down the federal government’s non-essential functions, including the Library of Congress.

Nothing gets published without a Library of Congress number, and when they reopened, “What Happens at School When You’re Not There?” was about the 90,000th title in line. So that took a while.

Denecke retired from District 103 in December and moved to Ohio to be near his grandchildren. He has spoken with district administrators about clearing times in the new school schedule for presentations at his old buildings.

Walking through those halls with a book in hand, instead of a mop, will fill him with helium, instead of excitement, Denecke said. And it might give him new ideas.

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